Why Reading Books That Make You Uncomfortable Makes You a Better Reader (And Person): Part 2
This is Part 2 of a three-part series exploring the value of reading books that make us uncomfortable and how we can grow from those reading experiences. Check out Part 1 here.
The truth is that I've been reading things that make me uncomfortable for a long time, but now I do so by choice. That wasn't always the case.
To be clear, I don't believe in censoring books, especially not after my fourth grade teacher ripped Harry Potter out of my hands during quiet reading time. It seemed silly to take a book away during quiet reading time, but it was this teacher and a handful of others like her, that first introduced me to books that made me uncomfortable.
Even as a kid I was staunchly logical. I was the kind of logical that's praised in scientists, but when you're a kid in a fundamentalist Christian elementary school that espouses the beliefs of Westboro Baptist, you don't exactly fit in.
I never had anything against religion, it just didn't make sense to me---neither in text or practice. I asked a lot of questions because I wanted to understand. Asking questions was praised in my other classes but not in Bible study.
After being chastised enough times, I did stop asking questions aloud, but that didn't keep myself from wondering. Teacher just said the reason we were born is to tell others about Jesus. But couldn't he have come when there were cars and traveled around introducing himself to people? What does he need me for? Teacher just announced that whoever brings the most friends to Wednesday night Bible school will get a prize. Does that mean Jesus only loves the popular kids? Teacher says that people who never hear Jesus' name end up going to heaven. So why is she telling us?
As you can imagine, these questions got me yelled at and forced to copy sentences from the Bible as punishment. I'm sure my teachers thought this was doing me good, but in reality it bred a contentious relationship with religious texts. This contentious relationship caused me to avoid nearly all religious texts for the next decade.
Then there was college. I felt safe exploring religion again within the confines of academia. I went to a private, liberal arts school with other painfully logical kids who grew up to be inquiring adults. Asking the hard questions was not only permitted, but encouraged.
After taking a few philosophy classes, I felt okay reading religious texts again. Or so I thought.
I wanted to understand my elementary teachers' impassioned pleas for me to love their god, despite how little sense his teachings made to me. I was told to read modern Christian texts that served as commentary on the Bible and its application to modern society, so I picked up The Christian Atheist and Radical.
They answered some of my questions, but the answers seemed cruel and hypocritical. (Specifically, Radical's author wrote that there's no way people who don't know about Jesus go to heaven, so that's why we should make it our life's mission to reach them. But inevitably some people can't be reached, so they just go to hell and that's the way it is. No big deal. I thought such sentiments were easy for him to say, having come from a place of privilege where his cultural tradition is conducive to receiving the Christian doctrine. Plus, I thought it was odd that after all his bantering about how we fail god when we don't reach his people---despite his god doing nothing to save them---that he hadn't opted to leave his multi-million dollar church in Birmingham to live his life among non-Christians in the far corners of the earth. I guess that, too, is just the way it is.)
It goes without saying that these books made me uncomfortable. But I don't regret having read them. Prior to that, I thought there was something wrong with me---the culture I was born into in the Southern U.S. is particularly conducive to Christianity, yet I never felt at home in it. I thought there was something I was missing, or some fatal flaw in me. It wasn't until I read those books that I realized there's nothing wrong with me at all. There's a reason there are so many religions and factions within those religions. If the goal was to find a spiritual tradition I did feel at home in, I'd just ruled out Christianity.
Having decided Christianity wasn't an option, I was free to explore other religious and spiritual texts. Further research led me to rule out Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism since I felt it would be disingenuous to espouse religions from a culture in which I didn't grow up, and where people from those religious are persecuted on a daily basis. I don't know that struggle, and those daily struggles with persecution are entwined with the religion. It would feel wrong to take the belief without the hardship that comes with believing.
I shifted my focus to Baha'i and Buddhism---the newest world religion and a philosophy/lifestyle that's often treated as a religion, respectively. I read a book of Baha'i prayers and meditations, then Buddha by Karen Armstrong. I decided that they weren't for me either; they made me uncomfortable in their own ways.
This is a journey I'm still on. I've got copies of A Chosen Faith, a text about the Unitarian Universalist tradition, as well as The God Delusion, an atheist text. It's equally possible that I'll find them unsatisfactory too, but I'm not going to let the possibility keep me from searching.
I realize now that sometimes when books make you uncomfortable, it's because the text speaks a belief that goes against something in your most fundamental core, and other times it's because the book is asking you to confront something within yourself---asking you to answer questions that you may not have ever answered before. Many people never question the religion they're born into, even if it's not the best religion for them. I don't want to be fearful of finding what's best for me, so the search continues.
Know any religious or philosophical books I should read? I'm taking recommendations! Or do you have a religious journey of your own that books guided you through? Leave a comment!